Core Values that Grow Strong Cultures

Growing and Living Core Values

Core values are “true north” for navigating in good times, and especially so in tough times. When I arrived in Seattle as superintendent, I found that we met regularly with: a) Small Cabinet: a dozen senior executives; and b) Extended Cabinet: three dozen middle-level leaders.

First Effort | Cabinet Norms = Meeting Behavior

Although we had norms in place, it was apparent we were not living our norms. A survey showed great gaps between espoused values and lived values:

  • Support decisions made by the team — importance 4.8; in practice 1.8
  • Debate issues; consider alternatives — importance 4.8; in practice 2.0
  • Focus on equity — importance 4.7; in practice 1.9
  • Be honest; speak your truth — importance 4.6; in practice 2.4
  • Assume positive intent — importance 4.6; in practice 1.6

These norms focused primarily on how we behaved during and after meetings, and were not so much about the core values we live 24/7.

At the same time, we were implementing an SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) system for schools district-wide. Our SEL system, called RULER, was designed around regulating emotions and included the idea of classroom and school “charters.” As a district leadership team, we set out to draft our own charter.

Second Effort | Cabinet Charter = How We Want to Be Treated

Our second attempt, our charter, focused on safety issues and how each of us as individuals wanted to be treated. The preamble read:

  • We the Extended Cabinet want to feel valued, engaged, inspired, safe, joyful, and effective.

And it went on to describe what each of these might look like in practice—a step forward in defining what we wanted to see.

Charter Implementation & Living the Charter

As I entered my third year in Seattle, I asked a small team to plan Extended Cabinet meetings around becoming a learning organization. We set aside two, two-hour sessions per month to grow our skills and capacity as a learning organization. I asked that we spend 15 minutes of each session defining and living our charter.

Over the next two years, we learned and grew together as a team. Gradually, we learned to be more vulnerable. Conversations became more open and honest.

Third Effort | Cabinet Charter = Shared Values

In year four, after exploring each element of the charter in depth, we revisited the charter from the perspective of a learning organization. Our charter document shifted once again. Now it reflected what each of us would contribute to a learning organization and what we would expect to receive in return. We were becoming a healthy learning community.

Our preamble now read,

  • We, the Extended Cabinet Members of SPS, will work together to create an environment where we feel: Brave, Curious, Accomplished, Optimistic, Inspired.

Notice that we now want to create an environment by working together. And each of our espoused values is now outward-facing, describing what each of us would do to make that happen.

Red Thread  

There is a concept in Chinese life and literacy that a red thread runs through our life, connecting people, events, and destiny. Norms, vision, mission, and values must be lived and learned in that same way—not just posted on the wall. It takes time and multiple attempts to refine them, learn them, and live them.

Protocols for Developing Core Values

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown has an excellent section on living our core values.

She describes it as the courage to be in the arena, rumbling, being vulnerable and honest with each other. She suggests working as a group to identify your top two values, and then digging deeply into what it would look like to live them.

Built to Last by Jim Collins researched great companies.

Collins says core values are “timeless guiding principles.” Nordstrom, for example, has held customer service as a core value for well over 100 years. He advocates looking for the 4-5 values that are deeply embedded in your DNA. Ask who represents the best of what we are; then gather those individuals to ask what core values they bring to work every day.

Living our Values 

What gets measured gains respect. Here are some ways to monitor and adjust:

Survey: One way we live our values is through surveys. These are a great start, but not overly informative.

Reflect: Another way, advocated by Brené Brown, is to “rumble” on what those core values mean. Johnson and Johnson did this regularly in living their 100-year-old credo which helped them survive the Tylenol crisis.

Celebrate: Nordstrom lives their values in staff meetings by telling stories each week about outstanding customer service.

Evidence:  In one recent, blinding glimpse of the obvious, Dan King, principal at Belfair Elementary simply said, Let’s ask them. He divided his team into seven groups: one for each of their seven core beliefs. Core belief number one, for example, reads, “We believe every student can learn and make growth.” Then he simply asked each group to chart evidence that points to living that belief. They then rotated their evidence posts to each group in turn. In the end, they had a snap-shot showing graphically where they were living their beliefs and where they needed to grow.

Collaboration Takes Work

Creating a strong culture takes hard work. We must learn and grow our way into a successful and optimistic learning organization. The good news: it can be done with practice, patience, and persistence.

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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